Again, I’m working on an iPad so the formatting is off, but we’re getting slightly closer! My post this week is a short essay I wrote for a class on the prompt ‘organized business interests influence policy making: critically discuss.’ As an American, it was immediately obvious to me that of course business interests influence policy making! But how exactly are they able to get away with it? I took the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and looked at how they have influenced automobile regulations, examining specifically how they manipulate each side of the discussion, both policy makers and consumers.
In the United States, businesses work together to directly and indirectly influence policy-making; they are often able to do this by maintaining a confusing and convoluted lobbying practice that is hard to track. In this paper, I would like to home in on one trade organization, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM). InfluenceMap, a research organization that analyzes how corporations are influencing climate change policy, published a report in March of 2018. This report highlights the ways in which the AAM has been working to get Obama-era standards for fuel efficiency repealed (InfluenceMap 2018). Using this report and information about the AAM, I will examine how this trade organization works to influence policy, first discussing the multi-faceted lobbying structure of which it is a part and determining the types of power they employ. I will then highlight how their goals change depending on which form of power they are utilizing and whether they are participating in the quiet politics of working directly with policymakers or the loud politics of the public eye (Busemeyer 2019).
When American businesses lobby politicians, it is a messy process. It is first important to note the many business interests that layer themselves in different ways in American politics. It is hard to track exactly who is allied with whom and who donates to whom in the fog of businesses banding together into trade organizations in order to affect policy-making. The largest of these trade organizations is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which claims itself as ‘America’s largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism’ (American Legislative Exchange Council 2019). In this organization, stage legislators work with other stakeholders to change policy. ALEC includes the AAM, and the AAM includes car manufacturers; at each level different actors are saying different things to different people and prioritizing certain goals over others (InfluenceMap 2018).
From a materialist standpoint, the case of AAM is fairly straightforward: they have specific desires and needs regarding automobile standards and they utilize direct influence to obtain those needs from policymakers and indirect influence to gain the support of consumers. Using instrumental power, they have the connections to speak directly to policymakers such as the EPA and Department of Transportation in order to gain their goals (Bell & Hindmoor 2014). For someone such as former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who regularly opposed the regulatory influence of the EPA on energy and environmental, the direct alliance of a group such as the AAM would help him further his own goals of deregulating the energy sector (Davenport 2016). From a constructivist standpoint however, the AAM’s influence and desires become more complex as they change the discourse of their needs based on their audience (Hay 2004). This feeds into their structural power as policymakers and consumers act according to what they think the automobile industry wants, without necessarily being prompted by lobbying.
When looking at their actions across time, it is clear that the AAM does have explicit desires that their direct lobbying pushes towards. Their main desire has been to lower greenhouse gas (GHG) and corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards in the years since 2016. Immediately after the presidential election, the AAM wrote directly to the Trump White House team, trying to stop the codifying of regulations before the administration changed in January 2017 (InfluenceMap 2018). They have continued the push to lower regulations from that point onwards. Among arguments that the standards were inappropriate, unfeasible, and costly, the organization has also utilized climate disinformation when submitting a report to the Department of Transportation, challenging the need for fuel economy regulation (InfluenceMap 2018). Here, the strategic use of climate skepticism and economic fears meant that the information didn’t have to be true. The AAM’s power was that various actors believed it to be true and believed the standards would affect the automobile industry drastically (Bell & Hindmoor 2014).
When speaking to the consumers, the AAM tries to maintain an environmentally friendly face, with the understanding that consumers recognize the need for better fuel economy in their vehicles. In a news statement, the AAM stressed that they are dedicated to having better fuel economy and fewer carbon emissions. They advocated both for improvements in fuel economy as well as economic growth, saying ‘We share the environmental idealism of California and the economic pragmatism of the administration in Washington’ (Bainwol 2018). This statement said that having to choose between the two is a false choice and is not necessary. They recognize that consumers want fuel economy. Yet the statement also reminds readers that the market shows that buyers will prioritize affordability, safety, and reliability over fuel economy; ‘Pretending that the buying decision is one-dimensional ignores the fact that well-informed consumers make purchase decisions based on competing priorities’ (Bainwol 2018). This statement allows consumers who do not care about environmental factors to feel supported in their choice of vehicle or brand, while other consumers are able to believe that the organization is fighting for more efficient vehicles. If environmentally-minded consumers believe that the businesses they patronize are supportive of clean environmental policies, they potentially will buy more from said companies and are less likely to boycott a brand.
In this zone of loud politics and the public eye, the AAM appears to be taking the side of the consumers, advocating for both environmental protection and economic growth (Busemeyer et al. forthcoming). This seems meant to placate the consumers while in the lobbying negotiations, other interests are coming to the forefront. This pattern can be seen in other business organizations both in the US and worldwide as well, as they use direct and indirect influence to affect policy-making. They even play the long-game of campaigning for less stringent lobbying laws (Ozymy 2013). Organized business interests influence policymaking and they are able to do so by hiding their tracks from policymakers and consumers alike.
Elizabeth Hampson is not associated with any organization mentioned in this article. She would not receive funding from any company that would benefit from this article. All opinions herein are her own.
American Legislative Exchange Council. (2019) About ALEC [online]. American Legislative Exchange Council. Available from: http://www.alec.org/about/ [Accessed 9/2/2019].
Bainwol, M. (2018) Check the Record: Automakers Do Support Better Fuel Economy [Press release]. 17 December. Available at: http://autoalliance.actualsize.me/2018/12/14/check-the-record-automakers-support-higher-fuel-economy/ (Accessed 9/2/2019).
Bell, S. & Hindmoor, A. (2014) The Structural Power of Business and the Power of Ideas: The Strange Case of the Australian Mining Tax. New Political Economy, 19 (3): 470-486.
Busemeyer, M., Garritzmann, J. and Neimanns, E. (forthcoming). A loud, but noisy signal? Public opinion, parties and interest group politics in the politics of education reform in Western Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Davenport, C. and Lipton, E., (2016). ‘Trump picks Scott Pruitt, climate change denialist, to lead EPA’, The New York Times, 7 December. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/07/us/politics/scott-pruitt-epa-trump.html. (Accessed: 9/3/2019).
Hay, C. (2004) Ideas, interests and institutions in the comparative political economy of great transformations. Review of International Political Economy. 11 (1): 204-226
InfluenceMap (2018) How the US auto industry is dismantling the world’s most successful climate policy. InfluenceMap.
Ozymy, J., (2013). Keepin’ on the Sunny Side: Scandals, Organized Interests, and the Passage of Legislative Lobbying Laws in the American States. American Politics Research. 41(1), 3–23.